Industry-Era Action Stories

This semester I teach graduate industrial organization. And while preparing, it occurred to me that if our stories adapted fast to our changing world, many and perhaps most action stories today would be about industrial organization, i.e., about firms competing over industries. The fact that most action stories today are not about this is a sad commentary on how slowly our stories adapt to our world. Let me explain.

Action stories are about conflict; people fight over big things at stake. Stories about one-on-one physical fights or chases come come from deep in our animal background. Related stories have conflicts within a couple who might mate. Similar stories about physical fights, chases, or love polygons among small groups come from nearly as far back. An animal fight story can have one animal notice and then run from another, with a climactic battle where one animal wins and the other goes away.

While such stories can happen for most any animal, it takes humans to have stories where tools are used to fight, hide, or chase. And it takes humans to have language to coordinates acts, to share info, and to deceive. And also to have social norms drive the coalition politics fights. Stories about humans can have villains deceiving others about their social norms violations, while good people use language and tools to coordinate to uncover and oppose villain crimes. Most crime and superhero stories fit well here.

Farmers told stories with all these same forager elements. But farmers also added new elements, such as overt inequality and classes, and stable locations, property and trade. Farmers also had larger social groups like clans, towns, and empires, and powerful moralizing gods. Farmer action stories often have wars, wherein large groups identified by their towns or clans, and led by elites, violently attack the known property, places, or elites of other large groups, with the just side often supported by moralizing gods.

The world of industry has also added new elements to our world, such as ideology, schools, firms, cities, fast travel and communication, and complex machine tools. And the stories we tell during the industry era certain do often include many of these new elements. But the core conflicts in our stories haven’t changed that much; we still love chases, fights, villains, and wars. Yet the core conflicts in our world have changed.

The world of animals was greatly shaped by chases and fights. But even though most of us are rarely involved in such things, we still love chase and fight stories. The world of foragers was greatly shaped by efforts to identify and oppose villains. But even though most of us rarely do that, we love crime and superhero stories. The world of farmers was greatly shaped by wars, and we still love war stories, even though wars happen and matter a lot less now.

Today the big fights that most shape our world are not the fights that dominate our action stories: fist fights, catching criminals, and wars between nations. While those mattered greatly in past eras, the fights that matter most today are arguably fights between firms over industries. The products and services we see, the cities where we congregate, and the people who are rich, are determined much more by which firms tried what in their battles to win customer allegiance.

Thus fights between firms are the great fight stories of today, in the sense of the being the large scale fights that most shape our world. And while during past eras the main stories told during those eras adapted to be about the main fights that shaped those eras, during out industry era we have not yet adapted industry-era stories to be about industry-era fights.

Few novels or movies tell the story of firms struggling to win customers. Sometimes we like stories of heroic inventors, but we usually suppress the group nature of their efforts. For example, recent movies on Alan Turing and Steve Jobs make it seem like those individuals did most of the work, ignoring the large teams that supported them.

If colleges taught courses detailing the methods of war, many young men would eagerly take them, and be quite engaged. But when we instead teach courses on industrial organization, i.e., on the many ways in which firms compete for customers, far fewer students take them, and their interest is more muted. Industry-era tastes for stories have not caught up with the industry-era reality that today these are the great conflicts that shape our world.

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  • Guest

    “Sometimes we like stories of heroic inventors, but we usually suppress the group nature of their efforts. For example, recent movies on Alan Turing and Steve Jobs make it seem like those individuals did most of the work, ignoring the large teams that supported them.”

  • “Sometimes we like stories of heroic inventors, but we usually suppress the group nature of their efforts. For example, recent movies on Alan Turing and Steve Jobs make it seem like those individuals did most of the work, ignoring the large teams that supported them.”

    This isn’t unique to stories of inventors, though. War stories will go to great lengths to allow a single hero, or small group of heroes, to change the outcome of a war. Examples could be multiplied endlessly. Sci-Fi and Fantasy have it easy, since they can imbue a single MacGuffin with an arbitrary amount of power (such as LOTR’s One Ring), but there are more “realistic” examples as well.

    The most recent example I’ve seen is The Interview, whose climax involved a few people in a tank blowing up a helicopter carrying Kim Jong-Un right before he could give the command to nuke the western coast of the US.

    • Steve Taylor

      > This isn’t unique to stories of inventors, though. War
      > stories will go to great lengths to allow a single hero,
      > or small group of heroes, to change the outcome
      > of a war.

      One surprising exception to this is “World War Z” (the book, but not the movie). I’m not a big fan of zombies, but I was fascinated to read a book so completely about a long term group effort, and with no single character in the foreground. As others have pointed out it owes a lot to the Studs Terkel interviews with WWII veterans.

  • I also wonder if this partly reflects the fact that if you’re a soldier, your most immediate problem is enemy soldiers trying to kill you, but if you work for a big corporation your most immediate problems may come from other employees of your same firm–hence Dilbert, The Office, etc.

    (That, or they come from government authorities, hence Arrested Development and Wolf of Wallstreet.)

    • IMASBA

      Soldiers are auded and get a pension after they’ve done their job. Employees get fired anonimously…

      Commanders take existential risks along with their soldiers (even a general in a bunker is a legitimate military target), managers will take a job at the “enemy” firm first chance they get.

      Corporate struggles are like mercenaries fighting for Afghan warlords or hitmen for American criminal gangs fighting over turf, not like war, the only way you can make an action story about them is by focusing on individuals.

  • lump1

    It sounds like it will be a good class. I hope that this post will serve as a template for how you introduce the topic on day one!

    You suggest corporate battles just don’t fascinate us, but if the Battle of Britain can be fascinating (without zooming in on any particular individuals), so can battles over customers. Geeks already follow with rapt attention the adoption rates of Linux and Bitcoin. The story of the Southern Strategy is fascinating, even if it’s just a chronicle of a marketing campaign. When we can identify the heroes and the villains, stories of institution v. institution conflict can be fascinating.

    Could a good storyteller make fascinating movie about the cola wars of the 80s (given that neither Coke nor Pepsi are good/evil)? Maybe, but probably it would look like a chess game in which fleshed out individuals (CEOs) are making moves and counter-moves, rallying their forces, sorting out conflict within their ranks, etc. I think the reason why the unit of fiction is the individual is because when we readers imagine ourselves in their shoes, we can experience a bit of the adrenaline that they would be feeling – for example, during chases, fights, budding romances, embarrassments and tragedies. Stories with collectives as fundamental action-units can’t give us this limbic reinforcement, so if unless the institution conflict is a good v. evil story, it can’t get our animal juices flowing.

  • Guest

    Corporate battles rarely translate well across cultures. Heroes can fight monsters or villains just as well in Hong Kong as in LA. Did cult-hit Empire Records do well in Japan or Britain?

  • oldoddjobs

    I am reminded of The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester, a science fiction novel in which rival commercial cartels are competing for dominance….but funnily enough the action in the story still consists of “chases, fights and villains” as Robin puts it!

  • charlie

    The entire MBA degree could be considered an education in the type of ‘conflict’ you find to be ignored.

  • Robert Koslover

    OK, this got my attention:
    ” …it occurred to me that if our stories adapted fast to our changing
    world, many and perhaps most action stories today would be about
    industrial organization…” Hmm! And then reading more… well, you weren’t kidding (or at least, not entirely kidding?) apparently.

    And that reminded me of a quite spirited conversation that I overheard among some young power-semiconductor engineers, several years ago. It went something like this: “Joe, you know what the world really, really needs, more than anything else? A faster and higher-current SCR, but with a lower voltage drop!” “Yeah!” So… it seems to me one could combine that similarly-awesome idea with your idea above, for twice the impact. Just imagine a novel or movie, where the action hero boldly seeks to reorganize an industry (a story with lots of action, as you have noted), but with the specific purpose of making faster-switching, higher-current capable SCRs with lower voltage drops. Isn’t that just about the most awesome and most action-packed story idea ever? 🙂

    • Our world is vastly more shaped by firms in conflict than by power-semiconductor engineers’ new gadgets.

      • Robert Koslover

        Well… maybe. But what about low-power integrated circuits, huh? Surely (and as it goes without saying) there are many great thrillers still waiting to be written about all the day-to-day action/adventure in the CMOS industry. (Ok, Ok, I’ll stop now.)

  • Robert Koslover

    And as an antenna scientist, I find it similarly sad that there are so very few nail-biting action-packed stories about antennas. Admittedly, there is this one:


    Corporations are amoral and all serve the same god (the almighty dollar). The only way we turn that into stories is by focusing on the suffering or exceptional deeds of individuals or small teams. Military conflicts that are (generally seen as) amoral, such as the siege of Troy or WWI were handled the same way. Nothing weird about that and our stories about Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg therefore ARE full-fledged industry-era-action stories.

    • Most tales of nations in conflict are no more naturally turnable into morality tales than are tales of firms in conflict. Yet we are vastly more engaged by the former than the latter.

      • IMASBA

        They are “more naturally urnable into morality” tales according to most people, that’s what counts. No corporation ever bled for a principle and the fate of employees is much less tied to corporations than that of citizens is to the fate of nations (nations also don’t “fire” citizens every time there is a slight economic downturn or when the citizen becomes old or sick). That is how it should be, corporations should merely be the means, not the ends. If you want war stories about corporations you have to up the ante beyond (current) reality: for example global megacorporations battling for resources, with the employees of the losing side dying from the lack of said resources and with two-way loyalty between the corporation and the employees (children of employees automatically being offered positions in the corporation, the corporation paying for pensions, education and medical care, the culture of the corporation aligning with the culture of the employees, the employees being geographically separated from the employees of other corporations, etc…) Normal employees are much more like mercenaries in the wars of nations, if we write favorable stories about them they focus on the individual or small groups, we don’t care beyond that because there’s no tribal aspect.

      • Corporations are amoral

        I wouldn’t say they’re amoral, exactly. They are organized around a proportionality system of values (per Alan P. Fiske’s theory). The most moving values are related to communal sharing (love, etc.) and, next highest but considerably less so, to hierarchy. Proportionality values are inherently less moving. [See “The habit theory of morality, moral influence, and moral evolution” for discussion of Fiske and cites. — ]

        [Robin writes, “Most tales of nations in conflict are no more naturally turnable into morality tales than are most tales of firms in conflict,” but this is just his claim, not evidence or argument.]

  • The fact that most action stories today are not about this is a sad commentary on how slowly our stories adapt to our world.

    Why’s that sad? [Do you have a theory of stories that tells you what we’re missing out on? Since you see stories primarily as distortions, in important ways we’re better off without them.]

  • Evan Gaensbauer

    My intuition is most popular action-stories aren’t about firms competing for customers because those stories would be boring. I believe others would share this intuition.

    This seems motivated by multiple factors. IMASBA laid this out in his reply to IMASBA below, but it’s more difficult for audience members to identify with an industrial organization. They’re more impersonal. As Topher Hallquist pointed out, war stories also often focus on single soldiers, or at best only a handful of soldiers in a larger battalion. As user lump1 noticed, battles between industrial firms over customers aren’t divided over good vs. evil, let alone triggering and empathetic tribal or political lines, often.

    Another thought I had that lump1 also started dovetailing on is that stories about industry might be too technical for broader appeal.

    “Geeks already follow with rapt attention the adoption rates of Linux and Bitcoin.”

    It takes geeks to follow this. Superhero stories are some of the most lucrative in fiction media presently. However, thirty, fifty, or seventy years ago, this wasn’t the case. Those stories were sidelined to comic books, and were the purview of unpopular “nerds”. Nerds are less stigmatized than previously, and the stories they favor are also more popular. It took time. As the rest of popular culture and media got acclimated the weirdness of science fiction, superhero stories became more popular.

    Firms winning over industry can be laden with industry-specific data and jargon. This is more difficult to convert into stories than information from other domains of life.

    While industry hasn’t been around as long as institutions such as nations, they’re more important to our lives than, e.g., superhero stories. Why haven’t they caught up as institutions to be personalized in our hearts and minds? Those running industrial firms are focused on running those firms rather than lionizing themselves, like governments do for their nations, while screenwriters paid to write stories aren’t raised or taught by firms. Maybe those working in P.R. would be consulting culture on how to transform the battles of their firms into narratives, than, for example, a CTO.

    If the tactics of other storytellers can’t be beaten, maybe they should be adopted. If Dr. Hanson can’t get his students to care about how firms overtake others outside the context of a narrative, maybe he should try weaving this info into exciting tales. I’d encourage him to, if only because it’s the sort of pioneering thought he’s already accustomed to, and because it’s an exercise his peers in economics could learn from.

  • jpt4

    I am curious Professor Hanson, do you find such “firm conflict” stories interesting? Do the events of the epic rearguard action by Rearden Steel and Taggart Transcontinental against the forces of decay enlisted by Orren Steel, Amalgamated Switch and Signal Company, Inc., for the minds and souls of that greatest firm, the U.S. of A., stir your own spirit?

    • Yes, real firm conflicts stir my soul.

      • jpt4

        Have you any recommendations (fiction or non) for those who would like to recalibrate their narrative sensitivities to better ingest – and thus judge – such tales?

  • Tom

    To the average person, there is generally very little at stake in these conflicts. Banks, utility companies, retailers, manufacturers–for the most part they’re interchangeable. You can make a human interest story out of someone who poured his life savings into starting a business, where he faces utter ruin if he fails. But a large corporation with wealthy investors shielded by limited liability laws? Even if they lose, they’re still wealthy.

  • Silent Cal

    I’d propose “The Wire” as an example of industry-era storytelling. It’s not about firms in the way you propose, but it’s very much about the problems of modern institutions, in such a way that a backport to the farmer era would be very forced.

  • stevesailer

    I’ve thought a fair amount about writing a screenplay about corporate battles, but much of the inherent problem is that what companies do that enables them to outcompete other companies is highly esoteric and thus hard to explain in a two hour movie. In this decade, Aaron Sorkin has managed to pull this off twice, with “The Social Network” and “Moneyball.” Those were impressive feats of screenwriting.

    J.C. Chandor did a good job with “Margin Call” and I look forward to seeing his movie about the heating oil business, “A Most Violent Year.”

    • oldoddjobs

      In the pivotal scene a strategic merger is quietly agreed after weeks of sober deliberation by the accountants….. Oscar winner right there…. or not.

    • Ronfar

      You forgot “Kinky Boots”. 😉

  • stevesailer

    A Hobbesian world where failure means death is full of interest to audiences. A corporate world where failure means your stock options expire out of the money is less inherently exciting.

    The threat of public humiliation adds interest, so there are numerous movies about show business, such as “Birdman.”

    • I guess we need more public humiliation of losing firm players then?

      • Dave Lindbergh

        Think Steve Ballmer.

  • advancedatheist

    Romance novels seem to show that women love stories about dominant men in hierarchical societies, even in preindustrial ones (the Outlander novels,for example). Why haven’t women’s fantasy lives adapted to the reality of ordinary men in egalitarian democracies?

    • Foo McBarson

      Christian Grey is a rich businessman. And millionaire dating websites are the only kind where women are more likely to message men. Looks like industry-era adaptation to me.

      If you’re going to complain that women are attracted to powerful men, shouldn’t you also complain that men are attracted to women who are young, have a favorable waist-to-hip ratio, have symmetrical faces, etc.? All these factors are less controllable than your status in society, and many women have body image issues due to their inability to control them. (Also, they’ve changed less with industrial society.) If you’re socially awkward, stop watching porn:

  • SanguineEmpiricist

    The linked textbooks on your class page are all invalid links.

  • Michael Vassar

    Try the 100 foot journey.

  • Michael Vassar

    Really, there are a lot of good examples. The Social Network. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Ghostbusters. Moby Dick. Limitless. Primer…

    • How is Moby Dick is about competition between firms? (Just to take one.)

      • michael vassar

        Just about a firm, but a lot of talk about hiring practices, equity distribution, etc.

    • lemmycaution

      Kurosawa’s “High and Low” is about a failed LBO (among other things).

  • Adolf Hitthebongler

    Such stories are boring in the real world. Why invest in a stylized for-sale media product of such a story? The whole idea is simply boring.

    —Managers duke it out for a larger slice of exurbia and a new car to fullfill their empty lives! Meanwhile Kate the intern loses her promised internship due to restructuring! The horror, she’s a bad person for not working hard enough!!! Her life is ruined! Rated PG so we can continue to propagandize to little kids about corporate america’s empty persuits! Catch it this fall on Disney!—

    Most industries in the USA are dominited by one to three corporate firms who aren’t allowed to lose. Too big too fail and all that. It’s the fact that they aren’t allowed to lose and their CEOs publically humiliated or put to death for ripping off millions of people (in fact during the last financial crisis these CEOs were made out to be heros for losing!) that guarantees such a story to be boring. Battles needs winners and losers, not just protected classes who aren’t allowed to lose.

  • When you mention “the great conflicts the shape our world” competition between firms does come to mind, but the other obvious answer is political competition, and the competition to shape public opinion.

  • Matthew Hammer

    It may be that you are mischaracterizing the “industrial era” by focusing on industrial firms. After all, farmer era stories don’t tend to focus on the organizational details of grain transport and storage (which vary in both time and space, as do the details of firm competition).

    Robert Solow argues that capital accumulation doesn’t explain a significant portion of economic growth, and I believe that it was you who identified that modern economic doubling time is comparable to the doubling time of the rate of publication of scientific papers.

    If we are really in the “scientific era”, then there are certainly possibilities for stories representative of the age. Science Fiction (and potentially Mysteries which achieved prominence even earlier in the age) may in fact represent important foundational norms for the era ( I’ll also point out that such stories do in fact display many of the trappings of the modern era as well, from firm conflicts to ideological contests.

    Also, looking from the point of view of social function, there are a large number of scientists and engineers who say they were inspired to enter their fields due to reading science fiction in their youth. So if stories have the purpose of propagating the cultural ideals of the era, then Science Fiction is certainly filling that role.

    Now admittedly, Science Fiction as defined by esr above is not particularly common in mainstream entertainment and I don’t think there are any such stories that have reached the level of folk myths. So, to an extent one probably needs to agree with you that the process of story formation is slow, and this early in our current era such stories have not yet been well established. But if you are going to argue that they are absent at a culturally relevant level, then I think it would be helpful for you to make an argument that the details of firm competition are significantly fundamental to the modern era compared to other possible options.

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